On Thursday, a Travis County judge ruled that Texas counties can now have multiple drop-off locations for hand delivery of absentee ballots after Gov. Greg Abbott’s tried to limit counties to one drop-off location.
It still remains unclear if state District Judge Tim Sulak’s decision will lead to the reopening of the Harris and Travis county drop-off locations after they were shut down because of Abbott’s order.
On behalf of Abbott and Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs, Texas General Ken Paxton immediately filed an appeal that stopped Sulak’s decision until the state’s 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin reviews it.
Sulak’s ruling is the latest turn in a handful of lawsuits in state and federal courts that challenge Abbott’s Oct 1 order, which closed ballot drop-off locations in Harris and Travis counties.
Several federal lawsuits filed by a Texas-based Anti-Defamation League, a voting rights advocacy group, and a voter, are similar to the Travis County lawsuit. On Monday, a federal appeals court approved the Republican governor’s order under federal law, reversing the lower court’s ruling. The Travis County decision has the potential to violate state law.
The state court argues that the governor doesn’t have the authority under state law to limit the absentee ballot hand delivery locations because his order violates the voters’ equal protection rights under the state constitution.
Sulak wrote, “The limitation to a single drop-off location for mail ballots would likely needlessly and unreasonably increase risks of exposure to COVID-19 infections, and needlessly and unreasonably substantially burden potential voters’ constitutionally protected rights to vote, as a consequence of increased travel and delays, among other things.”
In July, Abbott extended the early voting period, and the time voters had to deliver completed absentee ballots in person to the county clerk offices after concerns of voter safety during a pandemic became a priority. After large Democratic counties, including Harris and Travis had created several sites where voters could deliver their ballots, Abbott limited drop-offs to one per county.
Before Governor Abbott’s Oct 1 order, Travis county had four drop-off locations for hand delivery mail-in ballots, and Harris County had over a dozen. Voters must first present an approved form of ID to the poll worker in order to drop off a mail-in ballot in person at any location, and voters may not turn in anyone else’s ballot.
A spokesperson for Governor Abbott didn’t answer any questions on how multiple locations for ballot delivery could lead to fraud.
According to a filing by Paxon, counties including Harris, Travis, and Fort Bend wouldn’t provide “adequate election security, including poll watchers.” These “inconsistencies” he said, “introduced a risk to ballot integrity, such as by increasing the possibility of ballot harvesting.”
Abbott’s order was challenged by multiple voting rights groups in federal court and in Travis County. Three Democratic chairs from a high-profile congressional committee called the order an apparent “last-ditch effort to suppress Texans’ ability to vote.” However, Abbott’s order has been upheld in federal appellate court.
Max Feldman, the council at the Brennan Center for Justice said Thursday that some of the arguments are the same as those lost in federal court.
He said, “While there are similarities in terms of the scope of the rights, the federal courts’ view of the federal constitution does not control the state courts’ resolution of these issues under the state constitution.”